From the stylish boutiques along a stretch of Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks to Hollywood's seedy-chic Walk of Fame, the definition of where the sidewalk ends and commerce begins has become contested ground.
For decades, many cities have vigorously segregated the two, banning merchants from displaying goods along walkways in an effort to blot out eyesores and protect pedestrian access. But now, caught between the competing interests of shopkeepers and residents, Los Angeles has joined a handful of cities in the region that are rethinking the rules governing public walkways.
Sidewalks--no longer holy ground--are being incorporated into the commercial mix in some places, available to shopkeepers and pedestrians alike.
"It's to allow people to enjoy and experience businesses without going inside," said Steven Rose, president of the chamber of commerce in Culver City, where downtown merchants can now set some of their wares outside.
"It gives life to the boulevard," agreed Lina Lee of Ideas Furniture in Sherman Oaks. "There's always something to see."
Not everyone endorses such a concept. Public walkways should be reserved for pedestrians to enjoy free of impediment, opponents say. Who would be drawn to a street resembling a big rummage sale? A seemingly simple issue, yet residents and merchants are divided over whether sidewalk displays help or hurt the local economy, reel in or repel customers, sweeten or sour the local flavor.
In support of liberalizing long-standing laws against curbside displays are shopkeepers who say they rely on such tricks to grab the attention of potential patrons.
After a recent crackdown along Ventura Boulevard elicited unhappy reactions from merchants cited for anything from outdoor clothes racks to planters, public works officials have begun trying to ease the law to allow decorative flourishes such as the phalanx of armored knights that stand guard outside the Psychic Eye Bookstore at Ventura Boulevard near Greenbush Avenue.
"There are a lot of little stores that you wouldn't notice [without the sidewalk displays]," said Kelly Komo, as she shopped for furniture with her mother Joan. "They catch your eye."
Merchandise would still be banished, but one alternative might be to designate specific zones, such as the antique district along La Brea Avenue, where sidewalk displays would be legal, said City Councilman Mike Feuer, who represents that area as well as Sherman Oaks.
"It's important to distinguish the minor from the major," said Feuer, who endorses "making these rules flexible where that's appropriate."
Culver City has taken that route.
When a local artist was cited for setting out his eye-catching furniture on the sidewalk last year, urban planners took note, realizing that the city was penalizing the very business owners who were key to revitalizing the foundering area, said Sherry Jordan, Culver City's associate planner.
So city leaders approved a plan to permit sidewalk displays downtown, amending a strict policy that had been in place for half a century.
"This is a big breakthrough for Culver City. We're trying to make things more pedestrian-friendly," Jordan said.
But the City Council, mindful that the idea could spawn tackiness, set careful guidelines.
"They said, 'We don't want rolls of carpet. We don't want barrels of 10-cent underwear,' " Jordan said.
Instead, the only types of merchandise allowed on sidewalks are collectibles, books and raw foodstuffs. Merchants must maintain six feet of unobstructed walkway and assume liability in case of any accidents.
Clearly, just as the right landscaping can give an aging neighborhood a face lift, the kind of goods on display help create the atmosphere and make all the difference in positive or negative reactions.
In Hollywood, where Leron Gubler has served as executive director of the chamber of commerce for four years, he has yet to receive any complaints about the trendy merchandise that often clutters the sidewalks of Melrose Avenue on weekends. Some stores even move major pieces of furniture onto the concrete to attract customers.
But shift north to often grimy Hollywood Boulevard, home of kitschy souvenir shops that put a postcard rack or sandwich board outside, and the complaints mount.
"It's a different boulevard. You have to treat each according to its own needs," Gubler said.
Freer use of the sidewalks along bustling Pacific Boulevard in Huntington Park is also an uphill battle, to the dismay of Jack Wong, the city's director of community development.
As along Ventura and Hollywood boulevards, many store owners on Pacific are immigrants whose native cultures embrace open-air markets and shopping in public spaces, said Wong, the founder of Ethnopolis, a nonprofit group that studies urban ethnic communities.